New technology revives biofuels

August 9, 2011, EUREKA

Biofuel, in spite of controversies surrounding it, still holds many advantages, on an economical, as much as on an environmental level– it is derived from plants, which naturally absorb CO2, making it a much cleaner and widely available source of energy than, say, oil sands. But there's a hitch: biofuels contain a high amount of water and oxygen, which have a corrosive effect on engines.

Hybrid car fuels such as the E10, a mixture of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline, fast became unpopular in parts of Europe and consumers trust in this source of energy is not good. Around 70 % of German motorists, reveals a poll recently published), have been steering clear of bioethanol because of a suspicion that it could damage car engines.

The consumer is king

The transport industry has addressed the problem by diluting ethanol in regular fuel , thus adapting the gasoline obtained to existing engine standards. But now, a consortium of universities, small companies and bigger players in the energy and transport sectors has taken a novel approach to the problem, not changing the fuel mixture but the engines themselves. The challenge was to redesign engines so that they could adapt to non-conventional fuels, , by rethinking each component's finishing, rather than modifying their traditional structure. 'The result is not only a new breed of engines adapted to biofuels, the engines themselves are less noisy and longer lasting,' says project leader Dr Amaya Igartua, a senior scientist at Tekniker-IK4, a research institute in Spain's Basque country.

Current industry efforts to make biofuels more reliable and popular have not been successful because of the difficulty of maintaining and controlling the quality of fuel along the distribution line. Igartua readily admits that the strategic vision behind EQUIMOTOR PLUS was to regain the floundering confidence of European consumers: 'The issue of the quality of blended fuels available, due to their tendency to absorb water, has had a damaging effect on the market'.

A pragmatic approach

The idea for the project first came about in research carried out outside EUREKA, through the COST programme, but soon, the academic partners initially involved felt there was a potential for the results of their fundamental research to have a real impact on the market. EUREKA, with its simple procedures and orientation towards product development, was the perfect platform for elaboration of the project. Three years ago, EQUIMOTOR PLUS was launched through E!SURF, EUREKA's umbrella organisation for market-applied research on materials and nanotechnologies. From the outset, the project took a pragmatic line: the main benefit of biofuels, especially when compared with other green energy sources, was that their progressive introduction did not require a major technological leap, but rather innovation and market-adaptation.

Despite their corrosive effects, biofuels are adjusted to engines as we know them, (mainstream internal combustion motors), whereas there is still an on-going debate on the viability of the technology used, for example, in electric cars. If no serious technological alternative emerges in the years to come, studies show that it is extremely likely that the majority of powertrains available in 2030 will require liquid fuels, and, with the decreasing availability of petrol, biofuels will be leading the pack. 'We need to go step by step,' says Igartua. 'The main focus of the project was on the improvement of a technology that is already available, adapting it to the types of fuel blends that are the most commonly used, from E10 to E30.'

Hope for the future

But the European market might still not be ready for the introduction of this new technology. Iñaki Aguinaga, Product Engineering at Guascor-Dresser Rand, one of the main industrial partners in the project, says that his objective was to reach two markets located outside of Europe: Brazil and Venezuela. 'We wanted to sell in parts of the world where, in the consumer's eyes, biofuels are a viable solution'. Yet the results of the EQUIMOTOR project could be a game changer for the entire energy sector worldwide: 'What we have learned in this project, how to tackle the corrosive effect of biofuel, could equally be applied to the exploitation of gas or biomass, which there are also issues with corrosion.'

Moreover, while biofuel detractors still brandish the threat of a growing demand for raw materials meaning an increase in food prices, a new generation of biofuels is in production. They would not use food products as their main component but rather the otherwise-unconsumed share of the biomass. 'It was important for us to consider what are called 'second generation' biofuels and biofuels based on algae, as they represent a very promising source of energy for the future,' says Igartua. The project also opens new horizons for the introduction of fuel blends with a higher concentration of ethanol. 'This will certainly be the topic of a future EUREKA project!' she says.

Explore further: Successful integration of biofuels and combustion engines vital for biofuel success, says report

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5 / 5 (1) Aug 09, 2011
Give it up and buy some solar collectors. Photosynthesis is far too inefficient (typically about 1%) and require far too many costly inputs and farmlands. A hectare of solar thermal can produce as much net energy out as 300 hectares of croplands, with no scarce fuel or fertilizer inputs and much less water. Use thermal storage for off-hours generation, and electric vehicles.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 09, 2011
A common "source" of feedstock for the new biofuels is wood waste from lumbering operations. This waste doesn't exist. Everything from a log is used, the bark is used for landscaping, chips are used in OSB, sawdust is used as a fuel. I live near the largest lumbermill on the US West Coast and everything goes out the door for a price. There is no waste.
not rated yet Aug 09, 2011
Unless biofuels make a huge leap, they're never going to make a big dent in the fuel supply. sounds like they are making these engines more corrosion resistant and lower wear/maintenance, so at least it represents something that can be made into real progress regardless of the biofuel situation.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2011
Excuuuuussee me, but feedstock includes the slash from the logging operations and is its principle component. I lived in the Pacific Northwest as well, and drove flatbed in that area. My principal customers, l'il wet spots in the deeeeep wooooods that logged real trees. These Johnnies had to pick up the slash so as not to be a fire hazard for next year's season; and it went on 30 cu yd boxes towed by doubles tractors to a biomass plant along the Columbia River. The biomass people also bought other waste materials as well, like the cardboard from grocery stores, etc.
As an engineer I love efficient energy conversion systems like nuclear. The so called waste 'issue' could be solved by a simple law backed up by the police powers of a strong state. Extra benefit of nuclear is it could go to space. The Chinese will build a main ground to space re-usable booster from this soon. Like to see the demonstrators just 'try' to stop THAT one. We are too lily livered to do it.
1 / 5 (2) Aug 10, 2011
Give it up and buy some solar collectors. Photosynthesis is far too inefficient (typically about 1%) and require far too many costly inputs and farmlands. A hectare of solar thermal can produce as much net energy out as 300 hectares of croplands, with no scarce fuel or fertilizer inputs and much less water. Use thermal storage for off-hours generation, and electric vehicles.

Here's a nifty rooftop solar hydrogen production design. Pretty ingenious.

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